Yakima Basin irrigators face tight water year

Capital Press Staff Writer


YAKIMA, Wash. – The estimates are better than anticipated. Still, some Yakima Basin irrigators will face big cuts in water supplies this season.

Proratable or junior irrigation districts in the basin could receive 29 percent under their full water supply.

If precipitation during the rest of the water year is 80 percent of normal, proratable irrigation districts should get 71 percent of their water supply, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported March 6 during its first estimate of the total water supply available.

BuRec operates the Yakima Irrigation Project, 460,000 acres of diverse agricultural lands that stretch from Kittitas County to the Tri-Cities.

If subsequent precipitation is 120 percent of normal, proratable districts could receive as much as 99 percent of their water.

But if subsequent precipitation is 50 percent of normal, junior districts could receive only 53 percent of their water, BuRec said.

The numbers are better than the record drought in 2001, when proratable districts received as little as 38 percent of their water supply.

The estimates are significantly less than last year, when all districts in the basin received full water supplies.

Non-proratable water users in the basin should receive full water entitlements, BuRec said. Most of the senior districts in the basin have some proratable water and will see some cuts.

The two districts affected most by the TWSA estimates are the Kittitas Reclamation District and Roza Irrigation District, both proratable districts.

“The numbers are encouraging,” said Jack Carpenter, manager of the 59,000-acre KRD. “We should be OK if it holds.”

The major crop under Kittitas is timothy hay, targeted for export to Japan. In 2001, the district ran out of water in early August, leaving many farmers without a second cutting.

“We’ll run tight,” said Ron van Gundy, a consultant for the 72,000-acre Roza Irrigation District. In 2001, the district shut off water for several weeks during mid-season to stretch supplies for the orchards and vineyards in the district. The district also spent $2 million to buy additional water.

The Roza board will make the decision about the timing of water deliveries, van Gundy said. It is likely it will again try to stretch supplies throughout the season.

Although the numbers are better than some feared earlier because of the dry, mild weather, farmers still face uncertainties.

“We’re concerned about the outcome,” said Steve George of the Yakima River Basin Commodity Coalition, a group that follows basin water issues. “Farmers can take a small hit, but when water supplies are cut 10 percent to 15 percent or more, they get into major decision time.”

Growers will have to decide what to plant and when, based on their best guesses of water availability. The March 6 BuRec estimates are just the beginning, George said, and the actual water supply could vary widely.

Adding hope for water supply increases were heavy snowfalls in the Cascade Mountains last week. Several feet of snow fell, but warm temperatures that followed added to snowmelt and runoff that were already at high levels. BuRec data indicates inflow into the project’s five mountain reservoirs was nearly 128 percent of normal during February.

Precipitation so far this water season has been 78 percent of average, said Chris Lynch, BuRec engineer in Yakima. Water content in snowpack is about 63 percent of normal.

The reservoirs were at 55 percent of capacity, or about 89 percent of average, BuRec said.

Releases from the reservoirs are being kept to the minimum levels mandated by the courts for fish.

Work will continue this spring on repairs to Keechelus Dam. The water level in the reservoir behind the dam has been dropped while repairs are being made.


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